Musallam al-Barrak and the Competing Arenas of Kuwaiti Politics

Today, Musallam al-Barrak is scheduled to return to court for his appeal against a five-year prison sentence he received for allegedly insulting the Emir. Whatever the court rules today, the ruling will highlight the increasingly bisected nature of Kuwaiti politics between the regime-dominated political system and the opposition’s arena of popular mobilization.

Today’s hearing was scheduled on April 22nd, when Barrak appeared in court and was granted bail by the judge. Following the judge’s decision to grant him bail, thousands of his supporters gathered in the seuare next to the main prison in Salibiya region and lifted him onto their shoulders in an impromptu parade. Barrack said that it was his supporters who had him released after the hearing rather than his bail payment. He feels, not without justification given the fate of many other opposition supporters, that he must rely on public opinion to protect him from the regime’s crackdown on dissent. Last year’s nullified election in February demonstrated the extent of his backing as he received more votes than any other candidate (he boycotted the December election).

During the week between his sentencing on April 15th and his court appearance on April 22nd, Barrack repeatedly insisted that he would comply with the law and surrender when he saw a copy of the original arrest warrant, which he insisted police did not have. He evaded several attempts to arrest him, including a raid on his home (he was not there at the time), which he called a “cowardly action” by the government, which provoked a crowd of about 10,000 protesters to clash with riot police outside of a police station. He denied that his comments from an October rally that the Emir must not rule autocratically were an insult, and his supporters took to repeating his words as a show of solidarity. He insisted publicly that he would comply with the court’s rulings but his actions prior to the court hearing on April 22nd were those of a political figure confident of popular backing and intent on defiance.

The regime’s actions in the recent political crisis, including regarding the case of Barrak appear to be based on the calculation that these protests do not pose a fundamental threat to overthrow the regime. The regime seems also to be attempting to take advantage of the dominance of the political system that the opposition yielded to it by boycotting the election in December.

The stage was set when the February 2012 election resulted in the election of a parliament with a majority of opposition MPs, which meant that the regime could expect more opposition from parliament, including efforts to grill ministers. A series of events following the election took place which suggested that the regime may have been attempting to regain by decree what it lost at the ballot box. Over the summer a court ruling dissolved the parliament elected in February 2012 and reinstated the one elected in 2009. Subsequently, the regime attempted to have the courts overturn the 2006 electoral law, and when this failed, the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, issued a decree seen to favor the regime by reducing the number of votes Kuwaitis could cast from four to one, in a decree seen to favor the regime. This decree, along with the court ruling dissolving the parliament elected in February 2012 was the main catalyst for the opposition’s boycott of the December 2012 elections.

The central calculation by the regime appeared to be that its support would be high enough that they would be able to claim the boycott was a failure, or at least not an unmitigated success. The new parliament legitimized the electoral decree, and actually held a recent debate where MPs criticized the Interior Minister for not cracking down hard enough. The regime’s control of the formal political system has enabled it to have legal justification for cracking down on what it terms to be dissent (e.g. the allegations directed against Barrak for “insulting the Emir”).

Whatever happens in court today, the decision is likely to underline the divisions between Kuwait’s formal and informal political spaces. A denial of the appeal would trigger protests that could potentially be larger than those that have occurred in recent months, but the regime may be able to weather them. A decision to release Barrack – and the decision is up to the judge – would embolden his supporters and also set the stage for further protests on other issues, as well as future legal battles as the opposition would seek to contest the regime’s dominance of the political system. Either way, Kuwait is likely to experience demonstrations this week, and the ruling will be a key factor in determining their nature, their demands, and the degree to which they are violent or peaceful. This is the immediate implication of the decision to be handed down later today.

What Does the Recent Violence in Maan Mean?

Over the last week there have been recurrent episodes of violence in Jordan, triggered by the tribal violence at Al Hussein Bin Talal University in Maan. On Friday there were rallies held across Jordan condemning this violence and the regime for failing to stop it. This violence at the university, which announced that classes would be cancelled for a third day is tragic, and the risk is that if it spreads it could harm Jordan’s educational system, which is one of the country’s strongest assests. Over the last two decades the literacy rate and the enrollment rates have both increased, despite continuing issues with the exam-based selection process for universities and other secondary education such as medical school. Preventing this type of violence is critical because if it continues for a long enough period it will do lasting damage to Jordan’s educational system even if it were eventually brought under control.

The educational system’s improvements are not merely statistics printed on a sheet of paper. They have produced real benefits for Jordan and is an asset that the country possesses. One of the assets that this has produced is a health care system that is one of the best in the region, where foreigners come to obtain medical treatment. For example, Jordan is currently in a major dispute with Libya over hospital bills that the Libyan government has refused to pay, leading Jordanian private hospitals to stop accepting the Libyan government’s promises of future payment. Why did Libya, an oil-rich state send its patients to Jordan? They were sent there because the medical care was among the best, if not the best, in the region, and the reason why Jordan is able to offer such care is the quality of its education system and medical schools. This is why this type of violence cannot continue.

What is significant about these protests is what the protesters are actually calling for is security and stability and this is what the regime has failed to provide by failing to stop these clashes. This violence is outside the traditional dynamic of regime/opposition clashes. It involves a tribal dispute of unclear origins involving students and their relatives that turned violent in a public place, where anyone could have been caught in the crossfire. Justice Minister Hussein Majali has said that there were 22 arrested for weapons possession but time will tell if this incident is adequately investigated.

At a time of intense political turmoil and a newly-reappointed government steps have to be taken to make sure that this type of incident will never happen again. Many opponents of reform may argue that security and reform are diametrically opposed, but this incident – in which violence occurred

Update 1: Protesters Rally Against “Theatrial Plays” on Reform

**Update**More protests were held on Friday, March 15th in Amman. There were two rallies on Friday: an Islamist rally in downtown Amman with about 1000 participants and a leftist rally that attracted about 200 in Ashrafiye. The protests in Amman focused on both political and economic griefances. They criticized Prime Minister Ensour’s economic policies for seeking to raise prices, and called for his resignation. The protests also focused on the issue of corruption, as demonstrators chanted “We demand freedom from corruption.” The dissolution of parliament was another demand, and this may indicate that some of the demonstrators may have been affiliated with parties or movements supporting the boycott in January, including the Islamic Action Front. Protesters said they would hold a sit-in on the airport road beginning March 21st to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the March 24th rally that was broken up by security forces. Protests were not convinced to Amman alone, as rallies were also held elsewhere including in Irbid, Tafileh, Kafak, and Maan.

These protests and their persistence around Jordan indicate the sentiment that reform measures have been inadequate is widely held. To try and dismiss protests such as these as organized by parties such as the Islamic Action Front seeking to gain power misses the point entirely. If a group of people gathers to demonstrate they do so because of their grievances, not their party affiliation. These demands – for electoral reform, for an end to corruption, and against higher prices are widely held, even if watching events in nearby countries such as Syria, Egypt, or Tunisia may have made some Jordanians wary of similar events happening in Jordan. The higher turnout in January’s election over the previous one is perhaps best interpreted as a desire for a different type of change from that in other regional states, not an endorsement of the status quo. If the regime does not need these calls then future protests, and greater frustration with the political process are inevitable.

**Original Post**Another large protest attended by hundreds of people was held in Amman on Friday in front of the Al-Husseini Mosque. There was a diverse crowd or participants including Islamists, youth movements, and other reformists, and the rally used the slogan “Crisis of Governance, Not Governments.” The protesters chanted that the regime was not genuine in implementing reform efforts, saying that it was engaged in a “mere theatrical play.” They also called for reforms to the electoral law and for amending the constitution. There were also criticisms made of the government’s efforts to free Khaled Natour, who was detained in Saudi Arabia about two months ago. He had taken part in protests outside of the Saudi Embassy in Jordan against the crackdown in Bahrain.

The criticism that the regime’s reforms are a “mere theatrical play” have a significant amount of validity when one examines issues such as, for example, corruption. Perhaps the definition of a theatrical play is something that puts on a spectacle but is not actually real, or in this case not actually achieving change. In Amman Criminal Court right now, Walid Kurdi, former Chairman of the Jordan Phosphate Mining Company  (and husband of Princess Basma, aunt of King Abdullah) is on trial for corruption. He was indicted on January 2nd, and his assets have been seized. Witnesses have been called, evidence has been examined, and charges have been made that outline Kurdi’s alleged conduct, including involvement in overpriced shipping contracts signed shortly after the company’s privatization with a firm that he controlled along with his relatives. Putting an uncle of the King on trial for corruption is intended make it seem as though change is happening, and that no one is above the law.

There is, however, a problem: Kurdi left Jordan on a flight to London January 6, 2012 and has not returned since then. There’s a major corruption trial being held, but the defendant is missing. He is thought by some sources to still be in the UK, but the government has not filed an Interpol arrest warrant, and little progress if any seems to have been made on his extradition to face the charges.

If there were an example of a theatrical play on the issue of corruption, Kurdi’s trial would be one. This issue is just one example of how reform measures often seem to be oriented more towards making it appear action is being taken rather than taking the difficult measures needed to bring about change. This is true not just on corruption but on other issues as well such as elections, where improvements in process have been made but the electoral law remains unfair. This is why protests such as this continue to happen. People do not feel that the political process is capable of bring about substantive change.

Energy Costs: The Challenge Jordan Faces

Last week, the government announced that the price of several fuel products would rise:

  • 90 octane gas: increased from JD0.800 to JD0.835/liter
  • 95 octane gas: increased from JD0.990 to JD1.030/liter
  • diesel: increased from JD0.685 to JD0.710/liter
  • kerosene: increased from JD0.685 to JD0.710/liter
  • cooking gas cylinders: maintained at JD10/cylinder

The increase triggered protests in several cities, especially in Karak and Tafileh governorates in the southern part of Jordan. Several professional associations opposed the price increase, as did the Muslim Brotherhood and a major politica bloc, the Democratic Gathering Bloc (though it is backing IEC Chairman Abdallah al-Khatib for PM rather than Ensour) said it would not support a government that maintained this increase. The National Union bloc opposed it although it was sympathetic to the circumstances, while the Islamic Centrist Party said it would meet with Ensour before making a decision.

The recent price hike is part of the closely-linked challenges of a poor fiscal situation and a troubled economy are a key challenge that the next government and its successors will have to address over the long term. These challenges are inextricably linked – a stronger economy does not just generate more employment for the population, but it also improves the country’s fiscal situation. As private sector employment becomes more attractive it reduces the burden on the state to provide employment for the population. Meanwhile, the employees and businesses in the private sector would pay taxes and generate more revenue. So its beneficial in two ways.

One of the most difficult economic challenges for Jordan’s next government is energy, and specifically Jordan’s reliance on imported energy for 98 percent of its needs. This means that with energy prices high, Jordan pays 20 percent of GDP for energy imports. On the surface, the relationship seems to be a direct one: when energy prices rise, its bad for Jordan’s fiscal situation, and vice versa, but a report by the IMF indicates a slightly more complex situation. According to this report, increases in oil prices have two opposite effects – it is immediately negative because of the higher cost of imports, but Jordan does benefit from increases in remittances and aid over the longer term, as well as higher phosphate prices and demand for other Jordanian exports.

What this means is that in a normal situation an increase in energy prices would actually be a net positive when all factors were taken into account and the external inflows from the oil-producing economies are maintained. But what’s different now, and who, if anyone, is to blame for it? The answer ultimately is that the regime is to blame for leaving Jordan in a position where events such as the attacks on the gas pipeline in Egypt, not for the events that have occurred in the region themselves, but for leaving Jordan as unprepared as it is to cope with them, and for not addressing the imbalances in the Jordanian economy before it became a crisis.

With regards to fuel, Jordan is left with a single outdated refinery that has a legal monopoly on the refining business, and no immediate prospects for investment to either upgrade it or replace it with a more modern refinery. There is also the issue of electricity, where the regime has been providing power to households for 60 percent less than it costs to generate it, causing power consumption to rise rapidly. When disruptions occur, such as the attacks on the pipeline from Egypt, it raises the cost of power considerably, but with the indirect effects that rising oil prices bring (increased remittances and aid) that help offset the impact. It means that the cost of subsidies rose considerably, and the government had little choice but to lift the subsidies at the worst possible time, when people were most vulnerable.

Events in neighboring states, such as attacks on the pipeline in Egypt, the war in Syria, and continued instability in Iraq (and accompanying potential threats to the future pipeline to Aqaba) are outside Jordanian control, but they nonetheless should not be sufficient to harm the economy to the extent that they have. Some difficulties were inevitable, but it was the regime that allowed the country to get into its current position by neglecting needed reforms and using measures like patronage and subsidies to compensate.

Riots Show Jordan’s Political Crisis Continues

The elections were supposed to bring change, so why did riots take place throughout Jordan for several days afterwards? These events show that far from being over, the country’s political crisis continues to smolder. It’s not explosive, but its still there and still smoldering in the background of everything taking place in Jordanian politics. A total of 31 riots were said to have taken place between January 23rd (when the election was held) and January 26th, and these riots included shootings, blocked roads, and attacks on public institutions. Protesters also tried to attack Prime Minister Ensour’s home in Salt and the headquarters of the IEC in Amman, although police blocked their path in both locations. In Mafraq one person died in clashes between the supporters of rival tribal candidates, and there have been tribal protesters chanting slogans in support of the opposition, while the Muslim Brotherhood was largely absent.

Why is all of this happening? Part of it, of course, is the rivalries between tribal candidates causing clashes, but there is something more here as well. The election was not accepted universally by all political groups as a means of bringing about change in the way Jordan is governed. Many of them, including the Islamic Action Front and many reformist groups boycotted because they felt that the election was more of a way of the loyalists giving themselves legitimacy than it was a genuine effort at political reform.

These sentiments may have been reinforced by the selection of the person who is going to be negotiating on behalf of the regime when discussions on the selection of the next government begin: former Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh, who is now Chief of the Royal Court. According to a recent Al-Monitor article, Tarawneh was selected because for exactly this role. According to the article, “During the past years, Tarawneh has become known for doing what is asked of him quite accurately, and for being a good manager of the pawns in the political game, in accordance with the inclinations of decision-makers.” In this case, his selection might perhaps be another sign of the inclinations of decision makers. King Abdullah appointed him as PM when he ousted former Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, and he is appointing him Royal Court Chief now. If his appointment is indeed a signal of the regime’s inclinations, then does not bode well for future efforts at reform during the coming parliament.

In London, King Abdullah Talks About Reform. In Jordan He Jails Protesters

King Abdullah concluded his visit to the UK by saying that reform in Jordan is proceeding “strongly and steadily.” When one reads what he talked about and notes the sophistication of many in the audience, it leads me to wonder what was going through the minds of many of them. The event’s attendees included people from the media, politics, and other fields – and surely at least some of them are familiar with King Abdullah’s history of promises for reform that were made and then just as quickly broken. Perhaps he likes going to events like this because the reception he gets abroad is likely better than the one he would get at home.

He talked about the upcoming elections on January 23rd as though the boycott by the opposition and an unjust electoral law maintaining highly unequal district sizes for most of the seats simply don’t exist. A parliament elected in that manner isn’t progress, because politicians from the smaller constituencies will owe their election to the status quo and its difficult to envision them wanting to try and change it. He claims to be implementing reform even as the electoral law creates a natural base of lawmakers who would have a vested interest in opposing it.

Worst of all, he said these words about progress even as the regime continues to hold detainees from the protests in November. Many of the 113 who were scheduled to be released have not been freed yet, and the regime is refusing to release 13 of the detainess who it says were gulity of vandalism and “criminal conspiracy.” Among those still in custody is Emad Abu Hattab along with numerous other Muslim Brotherhood figures figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, which was why Islamist protesters were prominent in protests on Friday across Jordan calling for the regime to free the remaining detainees.

If the elections are being boycotted by the opposition, is that “steady and smooth” progress? If criticizing the King or participating in protests can land you in prison, is that “steady and smooth” progress? Reform is not merely the regime agreeing to certain changes in order to retain power, it’s final destination (indeed, it has one) is a government that is chosen by a parliament freely elected by its citizens who can express their wishes and criticize anyone. That’s real reform. That’s progress.

Jordan at a Crossroads

On Friday the National Front for Reform rallied in Amman under the title “A Popular Uprising for Reform.” The NFR, which is headed by former Prime Minister Ahmed Obeidat in Amman (which protested in front of the interior ministry without incident) attracted thousands of people and demonstrated that they is real demand for political reform – if the government is willing to accept it. There don’t seem to be many signs that they actually are, despite the fact that even retirees from the GID have called for political reform and condemned corruption.

The presence of security forces at the rally on Friday was heavy, although counter-demonstrations that were scheduled did not end up taking place. Prior to the demonstration, Obeidat met with the Prime Minister and sought a guarantee that the protesters would be protected. The demonstrations were attended by thousands of protesters, with AFP estimating that about 10,000 protesters attended. The protesters changed against the fuel prices, demanded reform, and the resignation of Prime Minister Ensour. Obeidat also called for a boycott of the general election under the current electoral law.

The fact that there is a degree of consensus about reforms is indicated by the position of the Islamic Action Front on the current political crisis. They have called for reconvening the previous parliament and for the government and opposition parties to engage in a dialogue that would produce a reformed electoral law and other measures.

These protests and others like them shows that the demand for reform is strong, and that the government should heed it. But they show little signs of doing so. The question then is why. Where is King Abdullah? Perhaps the answer can be found in the fact that he seems devoted to the affairs of every other country but his own. It is as though he believes that by disappearing from sight he can make people forget that in the end his word is the only one that really counts under the current political system.

Where Does Jordan Go from Here?

Jordan is in bad shape, and things are only likely to get worse in the future with economic difficulties and political uncertainty. The economy is in bad shape and has structural problems that need to be overcome, and politically the crisis seems only likely to get worse as the regime appears determined to continue stalling and taking symbolic measures.

This Friday, November 30th, the National Front for Reform will hold a demonstration in Amman backed by many of the major opposition groups in Jordan, under the title of a “Popular Uprising for Reform.” The National Front for Reform is headed by former Prime Minister Ahmed Obeidat, and its website (in Arabic) can be found here. The NFR does not call for regime change but rather for regime reform, as do other opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Jordan is facing real fundamental economic problems, including a fiscal deficit expected to reach JD2.5 billion (about $3.5 billion), and a trade deficit that reached JD6.772 billion ($9.569 billion) in the first nine months of this year, up 19.5 percent from last year. Simply put, Jordan exports less than half what it imports. Over the long term neither this nor the fiscal deficit are sustainable. There are also well-documented problems with corruption and unemployment, particularly among the younger generation. Aid is only a short-term answer, although the $487 million pledged by Saudi Arabia and the $250 million that Kuwait has deposited in the Central Bank will help ease the immediate crisis though even in this case Kuwait is only allowing the government access to half of the money immediately. The problem is that the government doesn’t appear to have any sort of long-term plan for reducing its aid dependence.

The regime’s immediate answer to these problems appears to be more repression. The regime has targeted the Muslim Brotherhood following the fuel protests, arresting 45 of its members and charging two of them with attempting to undermine the regime. Among those detained in the last week, both from the Muslim Brotherhood and other political movements, many of them have been denied access to either legal representation or medical care, according to @Freedom_Jordan, who also reported that two more activists were arrested on Wednesday.

The Muslim Brotherhood makes a convenient scapegoat for the government’s problems both domestically and internationally, even though they and all other opposition groups have demanded that the government listen to the demands of its people. President Morsi of Egypt with his recent decree may have played into the Jordanian regime’s hands even though he quickly qualified it. It enables the regime to suggest – falsely – that the choice is between a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship and the largely powerless elected institutions that currently exist.

It’s unclear where Jordan is going to go from here. What’s clear is that something has changed, and that the economic and political situations are unsustainable, this is evidenced by the fact that the protesters have criticized King Abdullah by name for the first time, and some of them have called for his ouster. The people have begun to recognize that they must take matters into their own hands or the regime will continue to make promises, stall, and ultimately deliver little to nothing. In order for things to change for the better there must be a government that is elected by the people with a clear mandate for change.

Otherwise, an unaccountable government is asking its people to make sacrifices while the corruption and repression continue and there is no plan to overcome the obstacles that the country faces. Just another election next month under an unfair and cosmetically-reformed electoral law that the opposition is planning to boycott. Jordan’s people deserve better.

Protests Held in Amman, Irbid, and Elsewhere

Protests continued throughout Jordan on Friday, with some of the largest protests occurring in Irbid. Rallies were also held in Amman and throughout Jordan today despite the decision of the National Front for Reform to postpone its planned protest until next Friday, November 30th due to inclement weather. This shows that despite the smaller crowds protesting in recent days the government’s disregard for the will of the people cannot continue indefinitely.

The following sections will outline events occurring in different areas throughout Jordan.  If you witness any developments, do not hesitate to tweet to us at @ImpatientBedu or email us using our contact us form, and we will add it here. Let us know if you do not want to be mentioned by name.


Protests on Friday were held against the fuel price increase, with citizens calling for boycotting the upcoming parliamentary elections – in one incident, burning their voter IDs in protest. These protests were led primarily by leftist and independent groups, without a major role from Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Some protesters also called once again for the overthrow of the regime.


According to the (albiet government-run) Jordan Times, the largest protests were held today in Irbid. There were several major protests in Irbid. Islamists organized a protest in front of Yarmouk  University demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister and the government. In addition there were two other demonstrations organized by leftist groups called “Popular Youth Coalition for Change” and the “Irbid Popular Movement for Change,” both of which called for the reversal of the decision on fuel protests.

Protesters also called for the release of the detainees who remain in custody.

Other Areas

Protests against the fuel price increase were also held in Karak, Maan, Tafileh, and Zarqa, according to @Freedom_Jordan.


November 20: Unrest Continues; King Abdullah’s Worries Continue to be Elsewhere

The regime’s crackdown on people demanding their rights continued unabated on Tuesday, one week after the government announced that it would be raising the price of fuel. Since protests began, the regime has offered only token gestures – like cancelling the pensions of Members of Parliament – without addressing any of the real demands of the people, which extend beyond merely cancelling the price increases on fuel. The government also pledged that they would review fuel prices every month, and that they would be altered to reflect market prices – leaving open the door for further price increases after the one that was implemented last week, though prices could also fall if oil prices fall. The government also announced that payments to lower-income families could be applied for at Knowledge Stations located around Jordan. Also, Prime Minister Ensour gave an account of his meeting with the JTA saying that they “left satisfied” from meeting him on Saturday, even though they decided to go ahead with the strike action on Sunday. If he believes this, he’s very out of touch.

These actions miss the point entirely though – the government that implemented this decision was appointed by the King, rather than by parliament, and the next government after the elections will be selected by a parliament packed with “Independent” candidates who are supporters of the King. The election for this parliament will take place under inequitable laws, and will be boycotted by the opposition.

Speaking of King Abdullah, a video on YouTube may potentially offer indications as to his whereabouts during the first few days of protests. If this is real, he is mocking the demonstrators? His attention during the demonstrations has almost deliberately been focused on events occurring everywhere but in Jordan. Today, for example, he spoke with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi about the situation in Gaza, and also spoke with Netanyahu, whom he warned not to launch a ground attack in Gaza.

Since the protests began last Tuesday, @Freedom_Jordan reports that between 260 and 300 people have been arrested, with 91 of them facing charges in State Security Court. He tweeted a list of names of those arrested (in Arabic) here.

Protests continued today against the government’s decision. There were rallies in Amman and elsewhere throughout the country, and several activists were arrested. Many protesters called for the dismissal of Prime Minister Ensour and the formation of a “Government of National Salvation.” Check the regional sections below for more information about events occurring in areas around Jordan.

If you witness any developments, do not hesitate to tweet to us at @ImpatientBedu or email us using our contact us form, and we will add it here. Let us know if you do not want to be mentioned by name.


In Amman there were protests in Jebel Hussein (which marched to the Nuzha area) and in Sweileh, where a protest organized by Islamists was held. Bara’a Also’od, an activist from Tafaileh was arrested by security forces, according to @Freedom_Jordan, who also reported that Mohammad Balawi was arrested in Baqaa.


A protest was held at the Almarj mosque, at which protesters chanted that the government was playing with fire by raising prices. An article (In Arabic) mentions this protest here.


Protests were held in Amman against the government’s decision to raise fuel subsidies. At these protests demonstrators also chanted against Israel’s attacks on Gaza.


Protests were held at which demonstrators called for the government to reverse its decision to end subsidies on fuel.


Two students were arrested at Balqa university, according to @Freedom_Jordan.